Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

(2) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

Ancient Latin texts in which Phoebe is regarded as an official deacon

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Romans 16:1-2 NRSV

Ancient Latin texts in which Phoebe is regarded as an official deaconPhoebe is called a diakonos by Paul; however, there is some debate about whether she was an official deacon in the church, or a minister in some more general sense. The ancient Latin translations[1] of Romans 16:1 (with the exception of the Latin New Testament used by Ambrosiaster) translate the Greek clause ousan kai diakonos (“being even/also a deacon”), in reference to Phoebe, as quae est in ministra.[2] Pliny the younger, who was governor of Pontus and Bithynia in 111-113, used the feminine plural of ministra when he wrote to Trajan saying that he had tortured two female slaves “who were being called deacons” (quae ministrae dicebantur) (Letters 10.96.8).[3] Or should ministrae be translated more generally as “ministers”, rather than “deacons”, here?
Image is an icon of Phoebe (Source: Google Images) 

Elizabeth McCabe notes that the Latin word ministra is synonymous with the Latin word diāconus, and that a diāconus can be defined as a minister of the church, that is, a “deacon”.[4] It seems that Pliny believed that the two tortured women were official ministers of the church. The Latin translators of Romans 16:1 likewise believed that Phoebe was an official minister, or deacon, of the church.

Origen (185–253) lived at a time when ordained female deacons were active in the church,[5] and he personally benefitted from the patronage of wealthy and intelligent women, some of who may have been deacons.[6] In around 246 Origen wrote his commentary on Romans (the oldest commentary on Romans that still survives) and it is apparent that he believed Phoebe to have been an appointed official of the church. In reference to Romans 16:1-2 he declared that:

“This passage teaches by apostolic authority that women also were appointed (constitiu) in the ministry of the church (in ministerio ecclesiae), in which office Phoebe was placed at the church at Cenchrea . . . And therefore this passage teaches two things equally and is to be interpreted . . . to mean that women are to be considered ministers (haberi . . . feminas minstras) in the church”
(Origen’s Commentary Romans 10.17, on Romans 16:1-2).[7]

Origen states here that women could be appointed for official ministry in the church. Madigan and Osiek, who are more cautious than McCabe, express their ambivalence about Phoebe’s status as an official deacon and suggest that Origen may have meant “ministry” and “minister” in a more general sense. They caution that the original Greek of Origen’s Commentary 10.17 does not survive, and so we cannot be sure which Greek words he used here. Therefore it is “unclear whether ministra should be translated as ‘minister’ or ‘deacon’. Likewise, the word ministerium could signify ‘ministry’ or ‘diaconate’.”[8] Nevertheless, Origen speaks of an official recognition and appointment of women ministers.

The only early Christian writers, who clearly state that Phoebe was an official deacon, wrote approximately two hundred years after Origen. Dating from around this time, there is also epigraphic evidence that indicates Phoebe was famous and recognised as a deacon by the early church. A funerary stele from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and dated to the latter half of the fourth century, or possibly even later, reads: “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia the deacon (hē diakonos), the second Phoebe (hē deutera Phoibē), who fell asleep in peace . . .”[9] To be referred to as “the second Phoebe” was clearly meant as an honour for the deacon Sophia who was commemorated on the stele.

While several Post-Nicene Christian writers unequivocally regarded Phoebe as an ordained deaconess, it must be pointed out that they may have projected the customs of a later female diaconate back onto the New Testament church. We must take care not to make a similar mistake by projecting modern customs and roles of deacons onto the first-century church. On the other hand, we must also not make the mistake of thinking that diakonos simply means “servant” in Romans 16:1, which is how the translators of the KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, CEB, etc, have translated the word here. Phoebe simply cannot have been both “a servant”, in the usual sense of the word, as well as being “a patroness (prostatis) of many”, as patronesses were wealthy and influential women in Greco-Roman society, and would have had servants of their own, rather than being servants themselves. The newer editions of the NIV, NLT, and NRSV translate diakonos as “deacon” in Romans 16:1, which reflects a growing consensus among scholars that Phoebe was a “deacon”. Craig Blomberg simply states “given that Paul calls Phoebe a diakonos ‘of the church in Cenchrea’ (Rom 16:1), it is likely she is one of its deacons.”[10] Leon Morris states more surely, “Phoebe is certainly called a deacon . . .”[11]

The evidence from the Latin texts, as well as the Greek, indicates that Phoebe was probably an officially recognised deacon and a leading woman in her community. But what was her role, or roles, as deacon of the church at Cenchrea?  In Part 3 we look at two of Phoebe’s roles.


Endnotes

[1] The Old Latin manuscripts of biblical books, also known as Vetus Latina, date from 200 to 380.

[2] Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986) Originally in French: Les Diaconesses: Essai Historique (Rome: C.L.V. Edizioni Liturgiche, 1982) 19.

[3] Pliny the Younger, The Letters of Pliny the Younger, 10.96-97. Quoted by Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (editors and translators) in Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005) 27.

[4] Elizabeth McCabe, A Reexamination of Phoebe as a “Diakonos” and “Prostatis”: Exposing the Inaccuracies of English Translations, on the Society of Biblical Literature website (2009) <http://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?ArticleId=830>

[5] Joan Cecelia Campbell, Phoebe: Patron and Emissary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 61.

[6] “After his father’s martyrdom when [Origen] was 16, the family was destitute, its property confiscated. An unnamed rich benefactress, a patroness for Christian philosophers, orthodox and otherwise, took him in (Eusebius EH 6.2.12-14). Subsequently both sexes benefitted from his teaching (EH 6.8.2). In the 230s he lodged with Juliana, a woman with an extensive library and with serious interest in the Scriptures and in teachers outside the mainstream. Supportive, rich and intellectually curious women furthered Origen’s career.” Christine Trevett, Christian Women and the Time of the Apostolic Fathers (AD c.80-160): Corinth, Rome and Asia Minor (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006), 19-20 (footnote 76).

[7] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (eds. and transl.), Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005) 14.

[8] Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church, 14.

[9] This stele is discussed in G.H.R. Horsley (ed.), New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Volume 4 (Ryde, NSW: Macquarie University Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1987) 239.
In the addenda section in volume 5 of New Documents, Horsely comments on new information that, though the stele was found on the Mount of Olives, its provenance may be Beer Sheba and its date may be later than the fourth century.  G.H.R Horsley (ed.), New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Volume 5 (Ryde, NSW: Macquarie University Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1989) 149.  Another funerary stele dating from the fourth century honours an otherwise unknown female deacon (hē diakonos) Maria. New Documents, Vol. 2, (1977) 109.

[10] Craig L. Blomberg, “Women in Ministry: A Complementarian Perspective”, Two Views of Women in Ministry, James Beck (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 249.
Blomberg goes on to say (on the same page) that “More and more Complementarian scholars are acknowledging [that Phoebe was a deacon], even though at times it has had little effect on the polity of the denomination to which they belong.” (Complementarians are Evangelical Christians who exclude women from certain ministry roles that include teaching and leading men, and they hold to an ideology of fixed and prescribed gender roles in marriage.)

[11] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 529.

This article is adapted from chapter four entitled “Phoebe and the Ministry of Women”, taken from a paper submitted on the 6th of November 2014 on “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40-120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea”.

The bibliography is here


Phoebe: A Deacon in the Church in Cenchrea

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Part 1: Phoebe and the Ministry of Women
Part 2: Ancient Latin texts in which Phoebe is regarded as an official deacon
Part 3: Phoebe’s role in Paul’s mission to Spain
Part 4: Deacons in the Philippian Church, and Phoebe
Part 5: Deacons in the Ephesian Church and Phoebe as Patron
Part 6: Deacons and women in the Apostolic Fathers as envoys and teachers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion


Related Articles

Working Women in the New Testament: Priscilla, Lydia and Phoebe
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Believing Wives and Female Co-workers of the Apostles
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders
The Diakon– Words in Major Greek Lexicons

Posted November 13th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry, , , , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

12 comments on “(2) Phoebe: A Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. Great post. I was always curious about Phoebe and whether she was a deacon or just a servant. Your arguments make it quite clear that women deacons existed in biblical times despite many claim that they are only deaconesses. Thanks for another good article.

  2. joseph mubuya says:

    This is inspirational teaching that every servant of God needs to have. Keep it up and enlighten the Jesus’ ministry.

    Thanks and let our heavenly Father bless you abundantly.

  3. Marg says:

    Thank you Curious Thinker, and thank you Joseph.

  4. Don Johnson says:

    My take is that the establishment of church offices represents a falling away from the NT ideal of ministry being the qualification for leaders and that leadership was by a plurality of elders. The contrast between office and ministry is that an office needs to be filled when it becomes vacant, but when one is doing a ministry they need not be replaced when they leave for any reason. The contrast being a single leader and a plurality of elders is also noted. As I see it, these changes were more conforming to the Roman system, but were not authorized.

    Also, Phoebe is not called a deaconess in Scripture, altho that term existed.

  5. Marg says:

    Hi Don,

    The Greek word diakonissa (deaconess) did not exist until just before Chrysostom’s time. Diakonos was used for both male and female ministers before the fourth century. (I’ve just edited the article to make that clearer.)

    I think that the concept of permanent, official positions that are filled with professional clergy, rather than recognising authentic ministries within one’s own congregations, is detrimental to churches. As is the idea of a single leader (monoepiscopacy) which seems to have been adopted very early by the church. The New Testament pattern is that churches are led by a group of elders or overseers.

  6. […] The use of a one-woman man in the 1 Timothy passage about ministers (diakonoi – “deacons”) shows that it may be  applied generically to both men and women.  1 Timothy 3:8-10 is about men ministers; 1 Timothy 3:11 is about women ministers; and 1 Timothy 3:12-13 is about both men and women ministers (diakonoi).  Chrysostom wrote that the phrase a one-woman man in 1 Timothy 3:12 “. . . must be understood therefore to relate to Deaconesses [women ministers].  For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church”. (Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy, Homily XI) [More about deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 here.] […]

  7. […] Pliny the Younger was the governor of Pontus and Bithynia from 111 to 113 AD. Pontus and Bithynia were two of the provinces where Peter’s letter was sent (1 Pet. 1:1). Among those whom Pliny tortured where two female ministers, or deacons. (Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97) […]

  8. […] [4] We have ample evidence that slaves, including female slaves, were very much part of the early church communities.  Some slaves were even ministers.  In his letter to the emperor Trajan, in around 111-113AD, Pliny (governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor) wrote that he had tortured and interrogated two Christian slave women.  He writes that these women were called ministers (Latin: ministrae).  (Pliny the Younger, Epistle to Trajan, 10:96) [More on this here.] […]

  9. […] Part 2: Evidence that Phoebe was Regarded as an Official Deacon (Evidence from ancient Latin texts.) […]

  10. […] Some male and female slaves in the early church appear to have become bishops (Ignatius, Eph 1:3, etc) and deacons (Pliny, Letters 10:96). […]

  11. […] Some male and female slaves in the early church appear to have become bishops (Ignatius, Eph 1:3, etc) and deacons (Pliny, Letters 10:96). […]

  12. […] In his letter to the emperor Trajan in around 111-113AD, Pliny (governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor) wrote that he had tortured and interrogated two Christian slave women. He writes that these women were called “ministers” (Latin: ministrae). (Pliny the Younger, Epistle to Trajan, 10:96) These slave women may even have been leaders in their Christian community. More on Pliny’s statement here. […]

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